Deputy O'Dowd has seven minutes remaining.
Water Services Bill 2003 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).
Having spoken last night, I would like to reiterate and expand on some of the points I made. One of the issues in this Bill is the reservation of powers to the county manager to make a water scheme. That raises deep concern among public representatives, not just on this side of the House or the other but all over the country. The Bill deprives elected members of any say in that decision-making process, delegating that important decision to the county manager.
It raises two fundamental questions about democracy in local government. The Minister must answer the very clear question of where the Government's commitment is to vibrant and transparent local democracy. The Government has deprived us of directly elected mayors. It has starved local authorities of funding. Now it is robbing elected members of any real power to make decisions. What is the Government afraid of? What is the Minister afraid of? Why does he not return powers to elected members to make decisions? They are elected with the mandate of the people. When they make decisions, whether they are right or wrong in the view of the Government of the day, they are democratically accountable and will face the electorate at a subsequent election. The weakness in the Minister's proposal is that it is the unelected representatives — officialdom and the bureaucrats — who makedecisions. They are never accountable to the electorate. When unpopular decisions must be made, as they must be in local government, it should still remain the function and within the power of the elected members to make that choice. Otherwise this Government is treating councillors like children who will sit in its lap when the Government has something nice to give them. When hard decisions are being made, the power is being taken away from councillors. That is why in many cases local government does not attract people of calibre and talent in the community, who would like to stand for election but who feel they would be powerless if and when elected.
Why is the Minister taking this action? Such tinkering with the decision-making process leads many inside and outside this House to become concerned about the Trojan horse potential of this Bill. The Government should be seen to do its business in a transparent and open way and the greatest transparency lies in testing the views of the electorate on these water schemes. To hide behind a county manager makes a mockery of democracy and councils do not want that either.
My colleague, Deputy McCormack, raised another vital issue regarding water provision. According to the Exchequer return figures published last week, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government underspent its budget by €650 million. How much clean water could have been provided for that money? Would it not have paid for a sewerage scheme in the many small towns and villages where water sources are polluted or inadequate, such as in Carraroe, where the water supply collapsed during the summer because of sewage problems? This occurred in the Galway Gaeltacht where thousands of children from all areas attend Irish classes. In our holiday villages and towns, especially on the coast, there is great pressure on the waste water system because of the large numbers of people arriving. It should be among the guidelines for councillors that they have due regard for that summer peak during which a problem such as leaking sewage can have adverse effects.
The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is not alone in its underspending. A sum of €700 million was saved in other areas, making a total saving of more than €1 billion across all Departments. That money is being saved this year and next to provide a slush fund and the appearance of a great deal of money being spent in the run-up to the general election. This is a scandal to which I will refer at every opportunity because so much money has been put aside this year and not spent on essential schemes.
To what saving is the Deputy referring?
The underspending last year in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which was in the order of €650 million.
Does the Deputy mean this year?
This year is not over yet.
It is almost over. The Minister would need to get the JCB crews working midnight shifts to spend the money at this stage.
Local authorities sometimes have so much money that they will not send in the bills until Christmas Eve.
It is the Minister's responsibility to ensure that the money is spent. When it is not spent and included in the income for the following year, people think they are getting more money when in fact this is money which was allocated but not spent. The Minister should ensure that when the Department allocates money, it is spent.
The primary aim is to get good value for it.
It is worse to waste money, which as the Minister of State knows has happened with the electronic voting system, which cost €50 million.
That system will keep.
The money is gone.
Gone on storage and rental costs.
The Minister said today that the system needed radical change. In America, John Kerry said that he has a dream team of lawyers ready to fight against the issues which they expect to be raised by electronic voting right across America. The Minister of State might allot some of the money saved into fighting that legal issue, because he made a total mess of electronic voting.
This Bill was the product of a European Union directive. Occasionally people are critical of such directives, but those on the environment, particularly with regard to the quality of drinking water and the treatment of waste water, have transformed the way we think about these issues. They have served the country well by ensuring greater care, management and accountability on environmental issues.
In this Bill the Minister is walking on local democracy. He is giving new powers to city and county managers and is hell-bent on introducing water charges through the sole power of the manager. That is not acceptable in this democracy.
I congratulate the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, on his appointment, and wish him well in that portfolio. He understands local government and local democracy and I hope he will reflect on the various reform packages introduced over the past 20 years. As it turned out on implementation, they were not reform packages and in spite of better local government we have yet to experience what local democracy and reform in local authority mean.
This is not the first time I have highlighted the need for such reform. In my involvement in local authorities over the past 25 years, every Minister with responsibility for local government has highlighted the need to reform local authorities and return them to the people. That has yet to be achieved. It is an unfulfilled objective. Regarding what Deputy O'Dowd said, there is a greater need to ensure that the dynamic which existed between officials and local public representatives is encouraged and supported. It does not exist to the same extent as it once did in local democracy. There is a certain hand in glove arrangement with bureaucracy which enables action but which has starved local democracy of real debate about what local government should be and how local public representatives should engage with the communities they represent.
We talk about empowering local communities, and this Bill contains references to the powers of local authority members and city and county managers. While empowering local communities is important because it gives them ownership of the water supply, water authority or any other authority exercised by the local authority, it is more important to empower local authority members. While various Bills are supported on this side of the House, it must be acknowledged that every piece of legislation has taken power away from council members. The appearance is given of granting local power but a big stick is also given to county managers to the effect that if a scheme is not implemented in a certain way, they have the right to implement it in their way. That takes power away from local authorities and is not the way forward. With the ending of the dual mandate, an action with which I disagreed, I had hoped there would be an even greater effort by central government to ensure that local government was transformed in a radical way and real powers were given to local communities to make decisions for themselves.
To fulfil this Bill or any other passed by this House, there is a need for the proper funding to be allocated. The cost of implementing the Bill must be factored in to the Department involved and to the Department of Finance, in terms of its planning. That is not happening, and one can see the evidence everywhere. This Bill refers to the need to draw up a plan for areas zoned for commercial or residential developments and to ensure that the appropriate water infrastructure is in place. In past legislation we have enabled local authorities to introduce their own charges to deal with issues such as planning. It now costs young couples who are buying houses for the first time from €3,500 upwards. That is seen as local taxation. There was a time when we gave people grants to build houses. Now, however, we do not do so and we ask for money. This legislation must provide for funding or no progress will be made. I ask the new Minister, by way of his experience at local authority level and by virtue of the fact that he has listened to debates in the House for a long period, to focus on the need for real reform.
I wish to make a final comment about the reform package and the benchmarking process. People in general and public representatives do not feel that they have obtained value for money. They seem to have been given access to 24-hour answering machines and it is becoming increasingly difficult to deal with officials on a one to one basis.
I will now deal with the Bill. Before going to work for Fianna Fáil in 1977, I worked as a water inspector with Kilkenny Corporation. I also worked in the capital with Dublin Corporation. The tools of the trade I used at that time are still used today. One used to have a long rod with a wooden piece at one end which helped one find leaks and determine the location of the mains. Not much has changed. There were people in Kilkenny who were provided services and ensured a decent supply. The late Jerry Davis, who worked for Kilkenny Corporation and Kilkenny Borough Council for many years, used to do what is set out in the Bill. He endeavoured to conserve water by identifying leaks throughout the system, improve that system and map out the location of the pipes. When he died it was a huge loss not only to his family but also to the borough council he served. I am sure there were others like him throughout the country who gave extraordinary service to local authorities. They went way beyond what was expected of them and did major work in terms of conservation and delivery of service.
The Bill should contain some statement in respect of a charter of customer rights and set out, in clear terms, for the new water authorities or local authorities the nature of those rights. If we do not do that, we will continue in the same vein. The onus will be on customers who make complaints, either individually or, if a group scheme is involved, collectively to prove that something has gone wrong. There is no doubt that something is seriously wrong with our current water systems. I can cite examples in my county where there is poor water pressure or no water at all. In Ardra and the greater Castlecomer area the water supply is diabolical. The water that comes out of the taps is brown and people cannot use it to wash clothes or have a shower or bath. The furniture in their toilets and bathrooms has been destroyed by discoloration.
Complaints to the local authorities in the areas to which I refer have not been followed up in a serious way and there has been no investment in the water infrastructure. Every effort made by local communities to protect the health of their members has been ignored. When the EPA or other agencies were brought in to investigate, they proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. Why can the local authorities not respond in a more deliberate and accurate way? Why can they not deal with the systems that are in place, identify the problems that exist, seek funds and rectify the situation without putting individuals and communities to the test of their mettle with regard to the length of time they might stay the course in their efforts to ensure that problems with their water systems are rectified? Surely it is an essential right to have proper water supplies in homes, factories, schools or wherever. Where that is not happening, local authorities should be obliged to take immediate action.
The other issue with which the Bill deals is zoned land and the proper infrastructure attaching thereto. I highlight an example in Kilkenny city, the western environs of which are being developed. The standard planning permission to build a house in the area attracts a charge of €3,500. As stated, at one time people received grants but now they are presented with bills. However, for an area of the sort to which I refer in which development is taking place there is an additional charge of €14,500. I am sure Members who represent other urban areas could cite similar examples. It will cost people wishing to live in the area to which I refer, which is important to the development of the city of Kilkenny, far more to do so. It will also cost far more for jobs to be created there because of the charges that must be paid by developers. Surely there is a more sensible way to approach this matter.
Local authorities must ensure that housing numbers, in terms of construction, are met. In terms of employment, we must deliver jobs in commercial or industrial units at a proper rate and cost to developers and people creating employment. However, that is not happening and we will pay the price because we will add further to every cost along the line if there is not proper intervention. The latter can be achieved if there is that same dynamic to which I referred at local authority level. What is required is that managers' big sticks must be removed and members must, in real partnership with officials, achieve a workable solution within zoned areas. That does not appear to be catered for in the Bill. We better take note of that fact because we are simply passing the costs further down the line. It is not right that we, as legislators, would do this and not recognise the impact of that cost on the services infrastructure, be it water or roads, and the social infrastructure, which will also be harmed.
Part 4 of the Bill refers to the treatment of waste water etc. A state-of-the-art plant was built in Kilkenny to cater for its residential, industrial and commercial needs. For the past 15 years, however, it has been a nightmare to live anywhere near that plant. Regardless of the public debate about the odours emanating from the plant, there continues to be no improvement. Some of the residents who live on a road which runs close to the plant were obliged to move out of their homes at weekends because of the smell. They made complaints to the EPA and the European Union. If one lives close to the plant, one still gets the same disgusting smell. The people who work in IDA Ireland's nearby industrial estate are also obliged to endure the sickening odour from the plant. Consultants have investigated the position. The Government allocated €6 million during the past 12 months for the plant to be modernised and brought up to scratch in terms of its operations. However, that money has not been spent. The River Nore is being polluted on a daily basis when the plant malfunctions. That is unacceptable.
I return to the issue of a charter of rights for consumers. Consumers should have immediate access to the local authority to demand action. In the event that no action is taken, I do not mind if the Minister has an input to ensure it is taken. It is not acceptable that money allocated for a purpose is not spent efficiently to deal with a real problem.
I underline again for the benefit of the Minister of State that the area of north Kilkenny to which I referred has experienced ongoing problems with water over the past ten years. It is unacceptable that the water supply cannot be used in a growing urban centre such as Castlecomer. Various centres of population, including villages such as Golden, Paulstown and Goresbridge which once consisted of just a few houses, are mushrooming with houses being built where they had not been envisaged. These thriving villages have a poor water supply. We must show greater intent in the Bill to provide the funding required for water schemes to service these new houses and to decide retrospectively that areas such as these, which are experiencing population growth and will perhaps enjoy the fruits of decentralisation when it rolls out, will have a water scheme.
What will happen when demand for housing increases not only from the indigenous population but also from those prepared to invest in population centres such as the villages I have mentioned? This also applies to Kilkenny city, which has a deplorable water supply that affects the hospital. We should not be afraid to identify these problems and find a way in the legislation to provide adequate funding to enable schemes to proceed.
The Bill makes provision for design, build and operate programmes. I am concerned by the speed of delivery, particularly with regard to what is known as the Purcellsinch plant which was shockingly slow. This would not happen in business. We need to identify schemes and work proactively with the local authorities that are showing concern and begin to deliver.
I welcome the Bill. I do not wish to discuss it section by section but will focus on Part IV, which provides powers and obligations in relation to the management and protection of waste water infrastructure. The word "nuisance" is used, although not in terms of local authorities which are being a nuisance, as is often the case. They create nuisance through poor water supply or poor senior management in waste water treatment plants.
We want an adequate supply of grants. Section 17 empowers the Minister to make regulations establishing a scheme of grants assistance. We need to be serious about grants, rather than offering only a percentage of the cost of a scheme. A substantial percentage of the cost must be made available because standards must be met and the cost of schemes has increased significantly.
I note in a report from County Kilkenny that 124 groups are served from a private source and 108 groups are connected to the public water supply. Some of the groups in question have been in the system for years. Some are being built by the south Leinster DBO bundle and will require substantial funding to cover construction costs and maintain continuity and proper service.
While the legislation is important, we need the fine detail because sometimes the devil is in the detail. I encourage the Minister to press ahead and to examine the powers of local authority members. The most important issue raised by Members during the debate has been the need to provide proper, adequate funding for the public water supply and the group water and sewerage schemes. I wish the Minister well in his brief and with this Bill.
I will raise a number of issues which have cropped up from time to time in my constituency, some of which affect the north west of the city and part of Dublin county in particular. The Minister of State, as my constituency colleague, will be familiar with the issues I propose to highlight and I ask him to respond.
One question which crops up regularly and is often brought to the attention of local Deputies or councillors is how residents should deal with blocked sewers. In general, such cases are satisfactorily resolved when residents get together and sort out the problem by paying for a commercial company to clear the system. If difficulties arise, an environmental health officer will step in and, if necessary, issue legal notices to residents pointing out their legal obligations to keep sewers clear. Circumstances arise, however, which make matters difficult for residents and on which clarification is required. Under existing law, the position is not clear and I am not certain the Bill adequately addresses the issue.
What action can be taken, for example, if a problem arises with a sewerage system serving eight or ten houses and one of the residents cannot be contacted? The Minister of State will be aware of a recent case in the Courtlands estate in our constituency when one of the residents, in whose garden the manhole of a sewerage system with which there was a problem was located, was not at home for several days. Local residents served by the same system were not clear as to what were their rights in respect of entering the person's residence. I have not been able to establish whether this issue is addressed in the Bill.
It is unclear if people served by a particular system which is accessed in an unoccupied house have a right to enter the premises in question. Will the Minister of State clarify the matter? I presume an environmental health officer will have such a legal right. However, cases of this nature frequently arise at weekends or evenings when an environmental health officer cannot be reached and residents need to take immediate action. Time is of the essence in many such cases as sewage could spill into gardens. How do residents deal with such a case?
Some residents are not prepared to contribute to sorting out a sewage problem by meeting some of its costs. In the Dublin area, in particular, many houses are let to non-nationals, for instance, who may not understand how the system works, or to tenants who do not take responsibility for a problem or understand the need to co-operate with their neighbours by contributing to the cost of sorting out a problem. In such circumstances, the residents affected who are willing to contribute to solving the problem are at a loss and it often falls on a small number of people served by a system to pay to clear a blockage, although they have had no role in contributing to it.
Similar circumstances arise with regard to other utilities. The ESB, gas companies and other utility companies have the right to enter properties to deal with urgent matters. I presume local authorities have similar powers. If the local authority is not available to deal with the problem, residents do not know what to do. There is a strong case for changing the system to enable local authorities to do whatever is necessary to clear the system by dealing with the blockage and then charge the residents or the house owners later. That would be a more satisfactory way of dealing with it. It is not satisfactory to leave it to the private residents to sort it out, particularly at weekends.
The issue also arises with commercial companies. Do they have the right to enter properties without the express permission of the owner? Those matters need to be sorted out. I increasingly encounter difficulties in sorting out these problems in my constituency, and I am sure they occur elsewhere. Invariably, a small number of the residents affected take responsibility and bear the brunt of the costs involved.
Another issue is the adequacy of the surface water drainage system in the north city and county of Dublin. Over recent years there has been unprecedented development on the north side of the city and along the fringe area running between the city and county boundary from Coolock to Blanchardstown. One of the main developments there is the Dublin Port tunnel. From an engineering point of view it is a massive project but presumably it has an impact on the water table, underground streams, water supply generally and drainage facilities. However, the extent of the impact on the existing natural drainage system underground in that part of the city has not been clarified.
In addition, substantial development is taking place on the grounds of DCU. It is concentrated and intensive development. There is also the housing development taking place in the south Fingal area which will result in between 5,000 and 6,000 new dwellings being built north of Ballymun and Finglas within a short period of time. Furthermore, there is the regeneration of Ballymun which will double the number of housing units. While the developments are welcome and the infrastructure for sewerage and water supply has been put in place, through the north fringe sewer and the north city water mains system, I am not satisfied that sufficient consideration has been given to the surface water drainage system.
The infrastructure for surface water drainage is not adequate in the north city and county. A number of problem areas have come to my attention recently — the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, will be aware of them. In the Ballygall-Wadelai area, there are serious problems with drainage. Many residents report that their floorboards are rotting because of water gathering underneath their houses. The natural drainage is not taking place as it previously did. These people have large gardens and they have become waterlogged. That, in turn, has a detrimental impact on their homes.
Recently I attended a public meeting in my constituency where public representatives and council officials were told many stories about the effects of this, such as the constant smell of dampness in homes, rotting floors and serious difficulties with draining gardens and the area in which the houses are built. This problem did not always exist there. The area was always inclined to be damp but the problem has been exacerbated to a great extent in the past three years. It is hard to believe that it does not coincide with the huge level of development in the area.
Obviously, this is intolerable for the residents concerned. The council has put forward proposals for the residents to provide their own drainage systems but the cost is prohibitive for many. Residential areas should not be burdened with that cost simply because the existing infrastructure is inadequate. What examination has been carried out by the Department of the adequacy of the infrastructure to deal with surface water drainage in the north west of Dublin city and county?
Other difficulties which have arisen obviously relate to the regeneration project in the Ballymun area. It will be necessary to provide a ponding system in Poppintree Park to deal with drainage in the area, which has always been problematic. Additional problems were encountered recently with the drainage connection into the Wad River. The river encircles almost all the area I am discussing — Ballygall, Pinewood, Willow Park, Poppintree and Ballymun. It is more than a coincidence that these problems are arising at this time. There are serious difficulties with the Wad River and its ability to drain the area adequately. Large parts of the river have been culverted and this will seriously interfere with the natural drainage system. If water cannot get access into a natural river bed, as it cannot now due to culverting of the river, alternative arrangements must be put in place.
The Minister should give his attention to this issue. It is something for which the Department should take responsibility. It is beyond the capacity of individual residents to deal with it and they should not be expected to do so. It is the downside of the development that has taken place in recent years. Given that the Department has been involved in and funded the upgrading of the water supply and sewerage systems, it is time attention was paid to the surface water drainage system in the area as well. I ask the Minister to give the matter his urgent attention because it is affecting an increasing number of households. The area affected by this problem is continually widening. The problem crops up within a mile of what had previously been the only problematic area and it seems to be linked to the ongoing development I mentioned.
The third issue I wish to raise is what is happening to the Tolka River. It is a fine river that runs through the north side of the city but, unfortunately, it has been seriously damaged as a result of pollution associated with commercial activity. There is a particular problem in the Finglas area in the vicinity of Dunsink Lane, where a number of houses have been constructed without planning permission. Many of them have sewerage systems that go directly into the River Tolka. I appreciate the efforts being made to deal with the criminal activity that has long been taking place on Dunsink Lane and I hope those efforts will be increased over forthcoming weeks and the problem areas will be dealt with so people who are legally living in Dunsink Lane will be able to return to normality in the near future. That depends on the gardaí doing their work.
There are also huge environmental issues in the area that need to be tackled. Obviously, there is the issue of dumping and the rehabilitation of the lands that appear to have been used as a private landfill for the past few years. However, that is another day's work. Nevertheless, there is a problem with the Tolka River and the lack of adequate sewerage systems for the illegal houses in the area. The serious pollution taking place in one of the finest rivers in Dublin must be tackled as a matter of urgency. I hope the Minister will ensure that his officials contact the relevant officials in Fingal County Council and Dublin City Council, given that the river runs through both authority areas, and have this matter dealt with urgently.
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Roche, on his appointment as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and wish him well in that post. He will not be found wanting as he is an able Minister.
As members of local authorities over the years, Members have put significant effort into ensuring water was provided for group schemes. In my area of north Meath, the Kells-Oldcastle area, which has a large rural hinterland, the source of supply comes from the Meath-Westmeath border at Loughbawn. It is a good supply but, unfortunately, water has become scarce in recent years due to lack of rainfall. It was necessary to put in place the Kells augmentation plant which is now up and running and takes the pressure off Loughbawn.
The local authority officials and all involved have provided first class water for towns such as Kells and Oldcastle, villages such as Kilskyre, Drumbarra, Carlanstown and Crossakiel, other rural schemes such as those at Collierstown, Fenner, Moylough and Dromone, and additional extensions at locations such as Kilskyre, Newtowngarley and Ardglassen village, an old village which never had a water supply. It is tremendous that these rural locations can be supplied with top quality water. I thank all concerned and the successive Governments which provided funding for these services over the years.
I served on a local authority for 30 years and saw different Governments come and go. They were all very helpful to local authorities and communities, particularly in rural Ireland. The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, when Minister for the Environment and Local Government, brought in a scheme of grant aid for individual wells, which has been helpful to many in rural Ireland who had to provide their own water after wells went dry, were polluted or otherwise. Such schemes were welcome.
I welcome the Bill and compliment the Minister on bringing it forward. The provision of water services is a key responsibility for local authorities because water services are directly provided by local authorities. The day is long gone when we could afford to be carefree about the source of our drinking water and not be concerned about dumping our waste water in rivers, lakes and the open seas. Under the national development plan, the Government is providing First World water services infrastructure. We are spending considerably in excess of €4 billion in the period to 2006. This investment is rapidly transforming our water services from low tech and low cost to state of the art and high cost. This is especially so in the area of waste water treatment. A large part of the investment is in ensuring compliance with the EU urban waste water treatment directive. However, the Government, in a purely national initiative, is going even further. Modern treatment facilities are being provided for all centres down to those with a population of 1,000.
It is important that these valuable assets be properly managed to maximise their lifespan and efficiency of operation. This is being achieved in part through the method of procurement. All major projects are now procured on a design, build and operate basis. This gives us the best practice which the private sector can provide while in no way affecting ownership of the assets. The Bill itself is a key instrument in modernising our approach. It places water services on a more professional footing with clear responsibilities and accountabilities. The Minister will be in a position to ensure that the investment being made is matched by greater efficiency of operation. Our First World infrastructure deserves First World management.
Set against these achievements, we must acknowledge the continuing problems, most obvious of which is the case of drinking water quality in rural areas. This has been the subject of an adverse judgement against Ireland by the European Court of Justice. Failure to respond properly to this judgment could result in very heavy fines.
The people of rural Ireland are as entitled as everyone else to good quality drinking water. The Government is taking a twin-track approach to tackling this problem rapidly. Some €450 million is being invested in the rural water sector under the regional operational programmes. Alongside this, the Bill provides for the licensing of group water schemes. The Bill copperfastens a new relationship between local authorities and the rural water sector. Water services authorities will have explicit supervisory duties and responsibilities. They will also play a significant supporting and advisory role in regard to the group water scheme sector.
Modern regulation places greater demands than ever before on providers of water services, and rightly so. This can place a particular burden on the members of various voluntary community groups who toil selflessly on behalf of their friends and neighbours to provide them with essential water services. The Bill puts in place a formal mechanism through which local authority expertise can be applied to nurture and sustain this effort. Licensing is necessary to ensure standards are met, public health is protected and EU obligations are fulfilled. It will also provide a formal mechanism for local authorities to guide and assist with the development of group water scheme operations. The provision in section 91 will enable a water services authority to take over temporarily the operation and management of a scheme. It complements their licensing role in regard to the sector. The advantages are clear when one considers the alternatives.
The Bill strikes a balance between the strict regulatory requirements which are necessary to protect public health and the reality of water services provision in rural Ireland. It will be important that this balance is maintained by water services authorities as they perform their functions under the Bill, and the Minister will have powers of direction to ensure this is so. It is to be hoped that the deepening relationship between the group water scheme sector and the local authority sector will sustain this balance in the first instance.
The contribution which the group water scheme sector made to community development is immense. It has also contributed to the quality of rural life in general. This Bill will help to ensure the continued success of the movement and sustain this unique feature of Irish life. It has been developed in close consultation with the group scheme sector and is designed to help these very important service providers to reach best practice standards. I am assured it will not in any sense be punitive but will take a progressive developmental approach.
The detailed regulations which will give effect to the Bill will also be the subject of comprehensive consultation with the sector. The Bill establishes clear lines of supervision from the Minister through the local authority sector to the group water scheme sector. It will facilitate a robust and uniform application of quality and customer service standards across the entire spectrum of water services delivery and it will help to maintain and nurture the valued input of existing service providers to this vital public utility.
Availability of clean water and adequate sewage collection facilities is a fundamental prerequisite for a modern, successful society. Water services must be provided in a manner consistent with public policy and in accordance with prescribed standards. It is intended that the provision of water services by water services authorities will be keyed into pivotal national policy on planning and sustainable development. When carrying out their functions, water services authorities are obliged to take full account of relevant development plans, housing strategies, guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency and other specified plans and regulations. These obligations extend also to the supervision by water services authorities of other water service providers.
The Minister has outlined a range of duties of care which are placed on occupiers and owners of premises in relation to the sustainable use of water supplies. It is essential that every possible means of redress be available to anyone who is affected by a breach of such duties of care. The provision in section 70, in addition to enabling relevant water services authorities to prosecute offenders, provides for a direct means of redress for anybody affected by a breach of a duty of care under the section by means of a complaints procedure to the District Court. Such a procedure is in place under the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 regarding noise pollution complaints and has proved to be effective.
This legislation has teeth. Substantial fines of up to €15 million apply to specified offences. A court may also order that a person found guilty of an offence should, in addition to any penalty imposed, carry out all necessary remedial works to make good any damage caused. We are all aware of the number of illegal collectors who have been operating for many years and with whom local authorities have not been able to get to grips. It is not fair that some people must provide a proper collection while those I can only describe as cowboys get away with not doing so.
There is none in Wicklow. They are all in Meath.
The Minister will help the Deputy to straighten them all out.
Section 10 obliges a court, unless it is satisfied that there are special and substantial reasons, to order a person convicted of an offence to reimburse the cost of investigating and prosecuting the offence to the prosecuting authority. Section 11 enables a prosecuting authority to apply to the court for payment to it of the fine income. Water services authorities can thus set about the performance of their enforcement functions in the knowledge that they will not be burdened with substantial additional costs.
The provisions relating to water conservation is welcome. These are essential provisions. Water services authorities will have power to direct owners and occupiers of any premises to take corrective action to avoid wasting water and to restrict supplies in times of drought. These powers will apply whether a particular water service has been provided by the water services authority.
A new nationwide water conservation drive is currently under way involving substantial investment of public funds in the renewal and upgrading of mains distribution networks. There is little point in such investment, however, if hard-won gains are wasted. This Bill is a practical example of what can be achieved through streamlining of public regulation. It gathers together many diverse items of legislation into one easily accessible statute. It also explicitly ties in administrative procedures under the Bill with existing practice in other areas of public administration. Such cross-referencing and standardisation of procedures will lead to greater all-round efficiency in the delivery of public services and facilitate better public understanding of the operation of public administration in the country. The powers of acquisition in Part 7 link acquisition for the purposes of water services provision explicitly with general powers of acquisition under the Planning and Development Act 2000. This will ensure that the same procedures are used for land purchases in connection with water services provision as for other areas of public services provision.
The Bill will protect water services distribution and collection networks. One very practical and essential way of doing this is by preventing unauthorised connections to public water and waste water facilities. Sections 55 and 61 of this Bill detail the requirements necessary before such connections can be made. Clear provision in this regard is essential. Protection of the network makes sound financial sense, increases efficiency, is environmentally sustainable and prevents fraudulent use of services.
Of paramount importance is the overriding concern to protect public health at all times. Authorised persons will have extensive powers under section 22. If a supply is found to be unfit for human consumption, a water services authority is required to restrict or prohibit supply or take whatever other action it considers necessary to protect human health or the environment, and to issue a warning to users.
I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister of State and the Minister for bringing this Bill before the House.
If the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern, were never to hold a clinic during the next 12 months, he would still have enough on his plate from his constituency colleague, Deputy Shortall. The issues she raised would soon use up €650 million that is lying in the Department.
There is one issue I would like dealt with more than any other. I am not sure whether it can be accommodated in the Bill, but if possible I would like to see it done. It relates to the mantra of industry, with which we are very familiar, that the water taken into industrial plants is cleaner when leaving. That may be justified in some cases. If that is the case, the law should be amended to ensure the water take into industry is taken from below the outflow position, as has been done in some countries. This would be important, particularly for the chemical industry, because it is better if the water were cleaner coming out than when going in. I accept there would be a cost but the Minister must examine this process because it would allay many fears and assist in cleaning up our waters.
Deputy O'Dowd spoke about how powers were being removed from local authority members and given over to city and county managers. The Minister indicated in a press statement that he will amend the Bill to include a reserve function so that councillors will have the power to draw up schemes. In his speech, the Minister explained how this Bill replaces legislation from 1878 and he alluded to Isaac Butt, Charles Darwin and everyone else apart from Mrs. Brennan's bread. Local government was initiated in 1898. In County Wicklow, the Nationalist MP, E. P. O'Kelly, was instrumental in pushing for its establishment. Despite this, no legislation has been introduced to reform local government since.
While the Minister may disagree with me, council members have little or no power. For example, I could not find out how much moneys my local authority had in bank accounts. I know of no other public representatives or local authority members who have found out this information from their local authority. What power has a local authority member if he or she cannot find out how much moneys are in the authority's accounts? Will the Minister ensure the chairmen of strategic policy committees discuss with the various directorates how much money is available to them for the year and what projects will be initiated? At the moment, they do not have a clue. There are no structures or mechanisms in place for members, and by extension the public, to find out what is happening in local authorities.
From what Deputy McGuinness said about the first-time buyer's grant and the additional charges to house prices, he should be on this side of the House. I admire his openness and honesty. I know contributions made in the House are often tampered with or presented in a different light than was intended by press officers. I do not say that any political party has a monopoly on righteousness. However, it is a pity that this happens because Members tend to refrain from analysing legislation in the manner they should. County Wicklow has similar problems with water services as counties Meath and Kilkenny. This may seem unusual since it supplies most of the capital's water. It is often claimed that life expectancy has been extended due to advances in medicine. However, advances in engineering have contributed as much if not more to life expectancy. The engineering profession is often forgotten but I acknowledge its role in the provision of water services.
I like to see the good points of a Bill as opposed to its bad ones. The Minister referred to public private partnerships and design, build and operate schemes. Members are honing in on these as acting as the Trojan horse to introduce water charges and privatisation. However, there are no correct operational and budgetary structures in many sanitary services. I must stress to the press officers that I am not advocating the privatisation of the water services. However, I wonder if some of them were, would they be more efficient? Millions of euro have been spent over the years on our water services, yet there are few places that have a satisfactory water supply. There might not be a general perception of these difficulties but when one speaks to individuals, all experience difficulties with water supply. I welcome the advancement of the PPP provided it will not cost the State more than if it borrowed the money and it is not duped into buying a pig in a poke. I welcome the design, build and operate concept. I know a number of small water schemes where if I had just a few thousand euro, I would have corrected the problems. Reading cuttings from local newspapers, one will note everyone trying to reinvent the wheel rather than addressing the minor problems in water supply.
The Minister acknowledged that water charges already exist. Businesses and farmers are charged for water supplies but not everyone pays. Local authorities are not the best for following up on these arrears. One problem is that many people's water supplies, unknowingly, have water leaks, leading to substantial water bills and subsequent disputes with local authorities. This problem must be addressed. It costs to provide a water service and we all pay for it in some manner or form. In the last round of council estimates, businesses were hit with an inordinate increase in their water rates and charges for the disposal of waste water. Some are now aware of this because they only recently received their bills. It shows the weakness of the system when the message of what happens at local authorities does not get through in time to the people most affected. This issue goes back to the larger problem of local government funding. Deputy McGuinness referred to charges for houses in west Kilkenny. The Government extols the virtue of low tax rates but it is afraid to take the hit on the many stealth taxes. One reason house prices have risen so much is the additional charges on developers. Ultimately, these are passed on to the individual purchaser.
Section 48(2) allows local authorities to levy charges in specific circumstances. However, this can be abused, as has happened in County Wicklow where such charges have been added to house prices. I am glad that the Bill permits An Bord Pleanála to set fees or charges for water connections. I do not blame local authorities because they are starved of funding. However, they are forced to use unjust ways of collecting money. I do not believe a system where a small number of people pay for something that benefits everyone is a just system. It must be tackled and before the next general election, all political parties must set out their proposals on local government funding. This problem has existed since the promises made in the 1977 general election.
It is argued that a charge on consumption rather than a flat rate promotes the concept of water conservation awareness. The Minister stated that the water conservation measures will not be fully effective until there is broad public awareness of the fact. Will he clarify what is meant by "broad public awareness"? How will the charge be introduced into the public domain?
One of the difficulties I came across with group water schemes relates to when new wells have to be bored. The local environmental engineer has to negotiate with the landowner for the wayleave to the land to sink a well. Most people are reasonable but the one thing that really drives them crazy is if their neighbour gets more than they do. I would welcome the introduction of a transparent mechanism for payment in such cases because if a person is offered €5,000 while his neighbour was offered €35,000 for the same thing there would be hell to pay and this would cause difficulties with the boring of wells which could bring necessary projects to a standstill. Landowners should be informed as a group of what procedure is in place, otherwise stories develop legs that can lead to difficulties.
Section 56 refers to the power to cut off water from a premises if there is abuse or if excessive amounts of water are being used. I am not sure if this refers to households. It would be draconian to give a local authority power to cut off water to a household. Perhaps I am misinterpreting the word "premises". It could relate to commercial premises. If the Minister or Minister of State were watering the garden on a Saturday or washing the car they could use up a large amount of water. An elderly person next door would use significantly less water. It is difficult to reconcile both parties paying the same amount, through general taxation. The importance of water conservation cannot be overstated. Some mechanism needs to be put in place to reward water conservation.
Section 51 states that an alternative supply of drinking water is to be provided where domestic drinking water supplies are interrupted for more than 24 hours. I wish local authorities and the Department well in achieving this, as a significant cost could be incurred. Hardly a week goes by when some community does not get notice to the effect that drinking water should be boiled. I am aware of a recent case where the supply has been cut off for two weeks. A great deal of funding would be required to provide an alternative supply. I assume in most cases water trucks would be used. I do not know how the Minister will meet the requirements of that section. The provision is right and just but I will have to wait and see how it will operate.
One of the difficulties in my constituency, which no doubt, is common to other areas is that in spite of planning permission being granted, householders often move in to new developments to find their water is contaminated or sub-standard in some way. Unfortunately, the one who takes the full force of the problem is the local politician. Council officials then get it indirectly but it is a problem in all cases——
If they are not on holiday.
If they are not on holidays, or their phones are not on automatic answering. Unfortunately, the poor politicians are working all the time.
Local authorities should not permit developers to sell a house until such a time as the water has been tested and passed. I accept that difficulties can arise because purchasers are keen to get the go-ahead and solicitors are putting on pressure to release properties. When people move to a new property, they expect that they will have a good water supply, and rightly so. However, in many cases the standard of water is not adequate. This difficulty can easily be addressed. The developer should solve the problem but he has to be policed by the local authority. People should not be allowed sell their properties until the water supply has been passed. The onus should not be put on local authorities to take over inadequate water supplies, as has happened in some cases. It is difficult for the public to understand the number of schemes that exist where problems still remain with the water supply.
Reservoirs at Poulaphouca and Vartry supply water to Dublin. The old chestnut is often raised as to whether we cannot look at taking them back from Dublin City Council to get money for them. When Mr. Peter Barry was Minister for the Environment in the early 1980s he looked at this matter. I understand it is not really a runner for Wicklow County Council to take it over as it would even have cost it money. Last year some €25 million was received in income for the water supply but the cost of the upkeep of the reservoirs was €35 million. I am aware the system is very old. The new Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should carry out a study of this operation, its upkeep, income and so on.
Poulaphouca reservoir was set up in the late 1930s. It resulted in what was probably one of the few resettlement strategy policies in the country. Many people had to move from their homes. People who live in the vicinity of Poulaphouca Lake, which covers Blessington, Valleymount, Lacken, Ballyknockan and Manor Kilbride, cannot build a house within 200 metres of the lake, nor can they build a house within 100 metres of a feeder stream. No sewerage facilities can be provided in these areas. Following a decision of An Bord Pleanála, planning has been frozen in the village of Valleymount, which is on a peninsula that runs into the lake. The children of people who originally moved out of the lake area to the perimeter cannot now get planning permission in this area. This is not an exaggeration. In the past week I came across two cases where Dublin City Council and the environmental health officer recommended refusal of both applications, which were then withdrawn.
Will the Minister examine the issue of providing funding for a sewerage scheme in this area? I realise that relative to the number of households that will benefit from it, it would be an expensive project but due to the resettlement strategy the next generation should not be penalised. There is nowhere else for these people to go. They will be forced to move out of the area altogether. Dublin City Council is right to ensure the water quality is monitored and properly maintained but it saddens me to see a generation of people being hindered.
Recently a man who lives close to the lake explained his difficulty to me. His distance from the lake is disputed. His architect claimed he was 215 metres from the lake but the city council stated he was within 200 metres of it. From his house he showed me where his grandfather's house stood on the edge of the lake, where it could be seen partly submerged in water. They had to move from that house to where he now lives. This man's daughter has now been refused planning permission and I urge the Minister to examine the matter.
Illegal dumping in County Wicklow has caused a great deal of concern due to the impact it may have on water quality. I am aware the Minister has looked at invoking powers under the Waste Management Act to get people to remove waste. I was surprised to see in a newspaper yesterday that the IDA has an illegal dump with 40,000 tonnes of waste on its land at Belcamp and that it is currently seeking an application to keep it on site. That sends a poor signal to communities trying to get illegal waste removed from their areas to see a Government agency making an application for retention. I will follow up on this matter.
The intake of water used by chemical and pharmaceutical plants should be below the outflow to ensure the water is pure.